Saturday, June 6, 2015

Dropping Science

We talked about science and morality as if the two were the same thing.
--Geoff Ryman, WAS

It's a funny thing, reading Was right after reading H. G. Wells' Marriage. The quote above comes from a long internal monologue from a character who is thinking about a period pretty darn close to that of Marriage, and echoes some of the aspirational philosophy of Wells' work.

Through the early decades of the twentieth century, science and discovery fed an American identity filled with pride in innovation . Certainly, this has its problems in itself, but undeniably it co-opted study and basic science into an support for applied science that was core to the hurtling progress of our nineteeth and twentieth centuries, and is such a part of what the nation is, for good and ill. We gained a reputation as plastic people, perhaps - but we also burgeoned with domestic productivity which later we became ashamed of and sold away, and have not yet quite rebuilt - even as we fear and revile those to whom we gave up manufacture and labor economically.

Image: Wikipedia

A year or so ago, I wrote a post about my dad and his religious faith, and the consternation I've always felt, that people imagine scientists are by definition godless. I took that post down because it was too personal, but I'll echo it now with this observation - when I came to him as a kid, upset because the good little southern Christians in my class taunted me that my father couldn't believe in G-d because he was a scientist ... dad told me that his faith was the very reason he studied the workings of the world. When I was little, he said it in simple terms; but we had that conversation all my life, and his curiosity and spiritual wonder were never far apart. He enacted it in more than his profession; he was engaged by how everything worked - history, cars, carpentry, our minds and hearts, even politics.

My experience with the "godless" kids began in the nineteen-seventies. But there has been a shift in the national psyche since then, especially strong in the eighties and nineties, and bringing us to a place where the idea topping this post is inconceivable to too many people. Born of the same kinds of folk who raised my old tormenters, and of those tormenters themselves, now busily teaching their children the same biases and fears. The Reagan years pushed off this shift, and the increasing primacy of faith and fear politically has confirmed its power.

Now we talk about science and morality as if they are antagonistic properties. We are short on kids wanting to enter the sciences, and treat those who do as curiosities - perhaps to be admired, and we know we need them, but still the adults in research and even development are subject to skepticism and a perception as odd, if not outright dangerous.

Research and science are constant sources of cultural anxiety, and I'm not going to say that is without good reason. But human innovation has always brought with it ethical questions, and those are insufficient reason to simply shut down our attempts to eff the ineffable.

We've gone from inheriting the wind to breaking it.

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